Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own.
Recent years have brought substantial changes in the way reports are written. The old style "satisfactory work and progress", or the ambiguous "trying", have given way to fulsome personalised messages, such as:
"Miranda is a lovable human being who has a wonderful turn of phrase and is entirely capable of converting fractions into decimals."
Many teachers save time by using software packages to generate these detailed reports. At the press of a button, pre-programmed but apparently individualised comments can be imported into each document.
Parents who can recognise computer-generated care and concern may feel cynical, so if you use them, make sure there are genuine individual and personalised comments alongside them.
The non-judgmental element is difficult, because it can easily become bland: "She came, she went." All reports contain judgments, and so they should. It is more a question of which language register to use. "Utterly clueless" is harsher and less specific than "needs to practise tens and units".
The matter of audience is also important. Parents and children will read comments, so a mixture of encouragement and friendly advice will be helpful. The can-do approach, stressing children's good qualities and achievements, is one positive way of recording progress. Reports are permanent written records, however, so the more negative comments might be better made during a face-to-face meeting with parents, so they can be explained properly, and specific advice and support can be offered.
Cut to the chase
Do not waffle - tell it as it is and be able to prove it. Focus on progress, as this is the purpose of the process, and set realistic targets, saying how improvements can be made. Make sure reports are clearly written, and avoid abbreviations, slang and educational jargon. Check you are writing about the right child, then read through what you have written and keep notes or a copy of what you have said.
Kevin Harrison, Wolverhampton
Use your loaf
Parents will be hungry for news so prepare a "sandwich". Start with positive comments. Any critical aspects or exhortations to "do better" come next. Finally, butter them up by ending on a positive note. It works a treat.
Marlene Griffin, Welwyn Garden City
I reserve columns in my mark book for things I notice about students during class: social skills, disruption, chattering, helping others, critical thinking, organisation skills, not participating. This helps me remember the details of individual students.
Parents don't want a standard report - I have known one teacher give two siblings identical reports . They like details about participation, conduct and performance, so I spend some time recording stories from classroom life involving their children, which I can tell them. Students take pride in their reports and some keep them as souvenirs. This encourages me to make non-judgmental and accurate remarks, for they may affect their psychological well-being and could be looked at long after I am gone.
Amynah Bhanji, Rochford
Make it special
Each child is unique and reports should reflect this. Start with a general comment, then list strengths, achievements and what the child has enjoyed over the year. Avoid comparison with siblings.
Highlight one or two areas in which the child can improve or needs to work hard.
Give an overview of behaviour and attitudes, but describe actions rather than make statements about the child. "Baldrick knows the difference between right and wrong: he must now put this into practice." Finally, summarise their contribution to school life and mention any special achievements.
Stuart Myers, Leeds